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Minnesota guard, U.S. military face recruiting crisis even without vaccine mandate

Minnesota National Guard struggling to find new recruits
Minnesota National Guard struggling to find new recruits 07:08

MINNEAPOLIS -- Uncle Sam has never had to work this hard to get America's attention.

"We are in a war for talent," General James McConville, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, told members of the House Armed Services Committee. "That means recruiting our nation's best."

McConville's declaration is one of deeper concern for U.S. military officials, as well as in the National Guard, as the COVID-19 pandemic - plus an assortment of societal and cultural issues - have greatly affected the number of young Americans signing up to serve their country.

"The more people that we can show what we do and what we're about, the more people are going to take interest," Command Sgt. Maj. Shawn Kor, of the Minnesota National Guard's Recruitment and Retention Battalion, explained to WCCO. "Minnesota is a great state and Minnesotans are proud people and we offer them a way to give back to Minnesota and their country."

According to Kor, COVID-19 limited the battalion's ability to visit schools, fairs, ball-games and other engagements. In both 2021 and 2020, the guard missed its recruiting targets of 1,850 by up to 18%. In 2022, the guard lowered its target to 1,600 recruits, and is currently at 62% of its goal. 

"The corporate recruiting efforts is a real competition for us," Kor added. "You look at what's going on out there in terms of hiring, with companies offering signing bonuses, offering educational benefits to be part of their organization. In the past, you didn't see as much of that, and that made the military stand out."

Only 23% of Americans 17-24 eligible for service

Command Sgt. Maj. Kor has been with the battalion since 2005, which was in the thick of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I think there was more awareness of what the military did post 9/11 for that first 10-15 years after that, and then that dissipates over time," he said. "The military is not in the public purview as it was at that point."

The military, even if less attractive, might also be less attainable to a generation of Americans dealing with the increased prevalence of obesity and mental health challenges.

"We talk about aptitude, we talk about physical, we talk about medical, we talk about mental. Just across all those boards the pool of eligible people seems to be shrinking."

That sentiment echoed General McConville, who told congressmen that only 23% of Americans ages 17 to 24 could meet the military's eligibility requirements.

David Martin, CBS News Pentagon Correspondent, told WCCO that military officials are saying this is the toughest recruiting year ever since congress let the draft law expire in 1973.

"This is one of the long-term consequences of going to the all-volunteer military, which is what we did in 1973 as a result of the Vietnam War. If you don't have a steady supply of those young people coming into the military, then sooner or later it's going to decrease your readiness."

Martin added that readiness is not a short term issue; though the 2021 exit from Afghanistan was a "debacle," the military still executed the largest airlift operation in history.

"The U.S. military that went to war in Kuwait in 1990-91, that went to War in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. They were obviously a very high-quality military," said Martin.

Still, Martin warned that the military's very existence and purpose is at a key turning point, and the recruiting challenges underscore this unique time in American history.

"So we have the primary threat, what the Pentagon calls the 'pacing' threat, is China. I don't encounter a lot of young people who seem worried about China. It's a broad and ambiguous threat. It's not the enemy like Bin Laden was the enemy. You can argue the greatest threat to our national defense is not anything that happened overseas. It was January 6th, 2021, in the nation's capitol."

To help with recruitment, many branches have increased their enlistment bonuses, including up to a record $50,000 in some cases. Other branches, including the Navy, are amending some policies to reduce turnover by extending terms for current sailors.

COVID-19 vaccines add to challenges

The Minnesota National Guard on Thursday announced more than 500 soldiers and airmen will be barred from annual training, drill periods, and exercises, for not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Complying with all Department of Defense vaccination requirements is part our normal medical readiness requirements to meet our mission," Army Lt. Col. Kristen Augé, Minnesota National Guard's State Public Affairs Officer, told WCCO." Being vaccinated protects the health and welfare of our women and men to defend our nation's freedom."

According to Lt. Col. Augé, unvaccinated members make up less than 5% of its 13,000 servicemen and women; no one has been involuntarily discharged.

"The Minnesota National Guard respectfully acknowledges service members who have reservations about the COVID-19 vaccination and continues to work with them throughout this process," she added.

Across the country, more than 88% of the National Guard is fully vaccinated while nearly 90% have received at least one dose. 

"We're going to give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career," Army Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army Guard, said. We're not giving up on anybody until the separation paperwork is signed and completed."

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